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Spotlight Report

Phony cases a danger in abuse battle

Investigators use care, but can't always be sure

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 8/5/2002

Four years ago, after stories about serial pedophile priest John J. Geoghan first received widespread attention in the news media, a Lynn man and his mother went to prosecutors alleging that Geoghan had molested him as a boy.

But when State Police detectives assigned to the office of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly checked out Sean and Sylvia Murphy's story, they found holes in it. The Murphys didn't live where they said they did when Geoghan was supposed to have committed the crime. Detectives then discovered that Sylvia Murphy had forged her son's school records, which had been given to police to corroborate their story.

Last November, two months before the scandal over Cardinal Bernard F. Law's handling of Geoghan touched off a crisis in the Catholic Church, Sean Murphy pleaded guilty to filing a false allegation and was sentenced to two years in prison. His mother died, and prosecution of her case was moot.

While police and prosecutors believe such false allegations are rare, they say they are unavoidable when there is so much publicity about cases in which millions of dollars in settlements are being discussed.

Prosecutors who scrutinize these allegations to determine if they merit prosecution, and private lawyers who take on such cases in the form of civil lawsuits, say they go to great lengths to guard against false claims by seeking corroboration of such stories. But they acknowledge it is virtually impossible to prevent some false claims, even as they say they believe that the overwhelming majority of people who come forward with abuse allegations are, in fact, telling the truth.

Some lawyers who defend priests against such allegations complain that the church's tendency to settle claims without going to trial - initially to keep scandal from public view, now because it does not want to be seen as being insensitive to alleged victims - has robbed them of the best defense against phony claims: the jury system.

Timothy P. O'Neill, a former prosecutor who as a defense lawyer has represented priests accused of sexual abuse, said false claims are inevitable and that ''the best way to ferret out the false from the true is to let the process work - cross examination, confrontation of witnesses.''

''What's happening here now is that there is an impetus to settle cases before a priest confronts his accuser. That's a problem,'' said O'Neill. ''The process of litigation, if allowed to work, is the best vehicle to guard against false claims. How does the process react in the face of huge publicity? Not well, I'm afraid. The full story needs still to be written. At this point, priests have no voice.''

But advocates for the abused bristle at suggestions that some victims are coming forward mainly in search of money, or that some are making up their stories.

Barbara Blaine, a Chicago lawyer who is a founder of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, acknowledges that some unstable people with far-fetched accounts have approached the group over the years, but she believes the overwhelming majority of people coming forward are telling the truth.

''The vast majority of people who come forward don't want money. They want an apology,'' said Blaine. ''Ninety percent of the victims go to the church first. They file suits because they were ignored.''

David Clohessy, a SNAP leader, says the stigma attached to identifying oneself as a victim of sexual abuse by clergy is a safeguard against false claims. And he says those who suggest victims are looking for quick settlements from the church are cynical and don't appreciate the difficulties victims face coming forward.

Clohessy said that if someone unethical ''wants money from the church, they'll slip on the stairs,'' rather than open himself or herself to the stigma attached to accusing a priest of sexual misconduct.

Since January, when a Globe Spotlight Team report about the Archdiocese of Boston's handling of the Geoghan case touched off an avalanche of new claims about mostly old cases, a handful of allegations have been shown to be false. Since the mid-1980s, when the abuse of children by priests first surfaced in media reports, the highest-profile allegation of clergy sexual abuse that was recanted involved the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago. A former seminarian filed a $10 million suit against Bernardin in 1993, but later apologized and withdrew his allegations, saying they were the result of hypnosis and the encouragement of right-wing Catholics who wanted to get rid of the liberal archbishop.

More recently, police in California dismissed as unfounded claims by a woman earlier this year that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles had sexually assaulted her at a Catholic high school more than 30 years ago.

It was that prospect that led Mahony at the US Conference of Bishops in Dallas in June to call for mandated reporting of sexual abuse by priests to civil authorities. Mahony said the police and district attorney quickly concluded the charges against him were false, lifting suspicion from him almost immediately.

Advocates say the Bernardin debacle had a chilling effect on victims coming forward, but say the publicity surrounding the current crisis has brought hundreds of fresh allegations to light. The vast majority are too old to be prosecuted, because the statute of limitations has expired. But many of the newer ones are being made in the form of civil suits seeking monetary damages.

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said false or nebulous claims of sexual abuse of children are usually the result of bitter divorce proceedings, when money, custody, visitation rights, and often pride are at stake. But Coakley said prosecutors rely on a system for checking the veracity of a story, whether the accused is a family member, which is usually the case, or a trusted authority figure, such as a priest.

''False claims are always a concern,'' said Coakley. ''We have a protocol, vetting the cases. We do careful interviews with the child, a corroboration interview. It's the experience and judgment from our team that we go forward with a case if a) we believe the child's story and b) we corroborate it. But if someone at age 30 comes in and says, `I just went through therapy and now I believe I was abused,' I can't go forward with that case without corroboration.''

Coakley's office is currently preparing to go to trial against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, a retired priest accused of raping four boys at a since-closed Newton church, and many of the allegations against Shanley involve so-called repressed memory syndrome, in which alleged victims come forward with allegations involving traumatic events that they suppressed as children. Some defense lawyers criticize repressed memory as being the unreliable product of suggestive therapists.

But in an interview, Coakley suggested the Shanley prosecution will rely on more than repressed memories.

''I'm always worried about older memories. It was a huge concern'' in mounting a case against Shanley, she said. ''But we do not go forward without corroboration.''

Essex District Attorney Kevin M. Burke said the vast majority of allegations of child sexual abuse involve adults abusing children within their own family, and that most don't result in prosecutions.

''Most get screened out, not because we believe abuse did not occur but because the victims are too young'' to be credible or competent witnesses, said Burke. ''Do we believe them? Are they credible or competent in the eyes of the jury? All of those questions you have to answer. In most cases, we find it impossible. Our out is that it's almost always family abuse or caretaker abuse, and in that situation we can arrange to protect the child by taking them or the adult out of the situation.''

Burke said most of the cases of sexual abuse of children by clergy have not resulted in prosecutions because the statute of limitations has expired.

Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor who now frequently represents victims of sexual abuse, said weeding out phony claims is important because false allegations by the few hurt the legitimate claims of the many.

''It's hard,'' Murphy admitted. ''It's not like insurance fraud started yesterday. The incentive to lie for money is real. There's not a lot you can do if someone is determined to do it, but lawyers generally have created a very good barrier against false claims. It's not perfect, but for the most part it works.''

Having worn both hats, Murphy said prosecutors and plaintiffs' lawyers are looking for two key things in an alleged victim's story: consistency and corroboration.

''It's the consistency of the story, but even more, a common-sense base. Is it a story that makes a lot of common sense?'' said Murphy.

Added Robert A. Sherman, a Boston lawyer who, with his law partner Roderick MacLeish Jr., represents most of those who have made allegations against priests in the Archdiocese of Boston: ''We take people on conditionally, until we can get them evaluated. Even though we are lawyers, we are not professionals in that field. We have people who are ... interview them. Initially, someone does a phone screen. We don't take a case until we have met them, until we can get a sense of the person.''

Sherman, who estimates that he and MacLeish have taken on about 300 to 400 cases over the years, said there is a formal protocol for screening out claims that are unprovable or, perhaps, false.

''There are factors we look for'' to judge credibility, Sherman said. ''The consistency of a story is important. Also, we look to see the harm. There's a checklist. Substance abuse, anger, panic attacks, the difficulty in forming lasting personal relationships, the inability to keep a job despite being qualified, self-esteem problems. When people hit those checks consistently, you know. The key is to talk to them, go through their story. We ask, `Did they do this to you, did they do that to you?' Some people will agree with everything you suggest, and that raises credibility issues. But credible people will say, `No, he didn't do that to me, he did this,' and their story is very consistent.''

Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating said he believes that for all the talk about a flood of allegations against clergy, ''This is just the tip of the iceberg.''

''We're in the single digits in terms of percentage of people who have been victimized coming forward,'' said Keating. ''Most people simply won't report this.''

Keating recently met with an elderly man whose son had just died of cancer.

''The father told me that he had approached his son, on the son's death bed, and told him that he wished his son had not lost his faith, because it would be a comfort to him and the rest of the family at such a troubling time. And the son looked up at his father and said he was estranged from the church because a priest had raped him when he was a boy,'' said Keating. ''That's just one story, one family, but there's no doubt in my mind, this stuff doesn't come out. We don't know the half of it.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/5/2002.
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